News from Ampurdan

May 5, 2014

Salvador Dali - The Pharmacist of Ampurdan Seeking Absolutely Nothing - 1936

I like that dusty, maritime region of Europe known as Catalonia, and, in France, Languedoc.  Josep Pla is from that area, specifically Ampurdan.  His diary from the period at the end of WWI, heavily reworked over the succeeding decades, has just be translated and published by the NYRB.  It is a delightful read.



Catalonia and Pla

This book is long, and before starting it, I asked myself, “Do I really want to spend this much time in this man’s life?”  Almost immediately after starting, I realized that the answer was yes.    Here’s a bit from one of his countless arguments in a café:

Literature,” he said, “should be idealistic, delicate, out of the ordinary, It should come from here” — and he placed his hand over the heart.

“And why must literature be like that?” I asked.

“Because literature is for moments when there is nothing to do, when nothing is pressing, the only time there’s a vague possibility that people might want to curl up with a book.  Man wasn’t brought into the world to read books.  Make no mistake…the single serious problem we face in this world is how to get by, that is how to earn or spend money.  Men and women devote ninety-eight percent of their conscious life to that.  And that’s probably an understatement.  So, literature will always be a Sunday-afternoon activity, a moment on the day in the week when maybe — and this was truer years ago, since nowadays people to the movies — maybe they’ll feel like some distraction from their abiding obsessions.  And you expect them to pine for your raw, spare, realist fiction?  Why?  They’ve already had more than their fill of your real life.  Your kind of literature is redundant, flat–footed, commonplace, blindingly obvious.”

Well, I like fantasy, and I like realism.  And Pla hardly wrote any fiction at all – perhaps none at all.  And yet he gives full billing to these somewhat crackpot ideas in his journal.  And clearly, he’s somehow sympathetic, at least to the spirit of his friend.   Then there’s this;

Today Enric Grigola said that he knows a big fat man with a sensitive soul who feels immediately relieved of all material needs and worries , in a state of grace, whenever he loosens his belt a notch.

Coromina laughs when he hears this piece of information, and Frigola launches into him with feigned indignation, half ironic, half annoyed.  “You mock everything!” he says.  “I give you physical proof of states of mind that are purely spiritual, and you laugh.  What more do you want?  You’re never satisfied.”

Another book that I am reading takes up the theme of distraction, in an almost medical sense, and with a good deal of irony. The Female Quixote, by Charlotte Lennox is remarkable and entertaining for several reasons.  It was written by a woman, who had help in the writing business from Samuel Johnson and Samuel Richardson; it is very funny; it is an inversion of another Spanish tale, i.e. Don Quixote.  Instead of a man bewitched by tales of chivalry, bent on rescuiong damsels in distress, we have an intelligent and sharp-witted young lady intent on playing the role of female heroine of romance.  She insists on interpreting the behavior of all around her through the lens of her books, but though she is ridiculous, we end up rooting for her.  Maybe it’s because she’s a woman in a man’s world, or maybe it’s just the sheer determination she brings to having things (in appearance, at least) her own way that is so winning.



April 22, 2014

The Tell-Tale Heart$_57 (2)The Cask of Amontillado

I can try to blame it on the fantastic blog 50 Watts, or on this fine exhibit at The Morganbut in fact, it’s all on me:  I’ve loved books with woodcuts since I was a boy, and I recently went on a bit of a spree getting illustrated and limited editions of a few of my literary favorites.  None of them are particularly valuable, but all are, as they say, “collectible“.

Above, is an edition of Poe’s tales that was issued in the 1940s, although I recall these images from a library book, perhaps a reprint, when I was in school.  The book is in great condition, and I re-papered the tattered slipcase, one of my new hobbies.  I love that Fortunato and Montresor!

This collection of Poe stories (remember the old song from Mad Magazine?) is part of a series of woodcut-illustrated classics published in paperback by Penguin Books, and featured in the Morgan exhibition.  Found it online, but it has not arrived in the mail yet.


Of course, when it comes to Poe, my favorite, after Amontillado, and distiguished by being his only novel, is the Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym.  I bought a few editions in French, all translated by Charles Baudelaire, who introduced Poe to France in the 1850s.  This is a nicely illustrated copy from the 1970s.

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And here is a first edition of Pym’s Adventures, first edition in French, that is, published in 1858.  Why is it that the French were so far ahead of everyone else when it comes to paperbacks?  The book on the mantle of this well-known painting by Magritte is Arthur Gordon Pym, although I can’t make out the date.

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Finishing with Poe, I got this selection of tales, again in French, because I liked the wonderful lithographic illustrations.

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Done with Poe!  Candide is one of my all-time favorite books, so I have many copies of it, including a variety of cheap paperpacks, but I decided to upgrade my collection.  This French edition is illustrated by the Italian Umberto Brunelleschi using stencils, or pochoirs.  It was published in the 1930s – quite a racy little paperback.


Back to woodcuts with this 1920s edition, also heavy on the erotic aspect, as is par for the course with Candide, and why not!

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Not in the greatest condition, this one, but it was cheap, and get a load of that volupté

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And a tiny little softcover edition from the 1920s, complete with woodcut illustrations and vignettes.  Did I mention that one of my Internet passwords is Pangloss?

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I have a few editions of Candide with illustrations by Rockwell Kent – it was such a popular production that it was issued several times in different formats, but I had never even seen a copy of the Kent Moby Dick.  (I read that it was a big deal that Melville’s name wasn’t on the cover, as if you needed it!)  This Random House edition from 1930 is the first reissue of the Kent illustrated version, originally published in a very limited three-volume set.  (There is also a fancy gold and blue covered version of this book from 1933.)  Kent’s pictures are fantastic, but they are ink drawings, not woodcut prints, although they are almost always referred to as such.



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I like Barry Moser’s art work a lot, and I have a few trade editions of his books – Alice in Wonderland, Frankenstein – so I figured I should get a copy of his Moby Dick.  It’s often cited as a superlative example of book design and production, and the original letterpress edition goes for many thousands of dollars:  I settled for the hardcover University of California reprint.  I like it, but it just doesn’t excite me the way Rockwell Kent’s does.

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And while I was on this Herman Melville theme, I read this book about the slave trade, by a local historian.  The facts of the trade are unspeakably appalling, a veritable holocaust that played out over centuries.  Even the language of the traders is similar to what we know of Nazi organizers of the death camps:  the main difference was that slaves were expected to reproduce, rather than simply work themselves to death.  One of the benefits of a pre-industrial age.


It’s a discussion of the Atlantic slave trade, using Melville’s novella, Benito Cereno, as unifying narrative device for the history.  Until I read this book, I had thought that Melville based his story on facts from the Amistad case, but actually, there really was a Captain Delano!  He was an ancestor of FDR, and quite a few other people as well, and he was involved in the slave trade himself, fine old New Englander that he was.  The story is based on his memoir which recounts in detail his encounter with the historical Don Benito.  I purchased this limited edition illustrated edition of Benito Cereno with woodcuts by Derrick Palmer, published by the Imprint Society.

The pictures below show Delano being rowed to the captive slave ship, and Babu’s head on a pike, after the truth has been revealed.

photo_44477_carousel Benito-Cereno-Head


Melancholy Project

March 20, 2014


The NYRB edition of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy is great, but let’s face it – it’s a pain to lug around!  It is certainly the best to read, because it retains the endless series of Latin quotations in the text while providing their translations right after each one, in brackets.  No need to constantly thumb to the notes to see what they mean, and with the English right there, sometimes they are fun to read.

It turns out that the text first appeared in the Everyman’s Library, revived recently, in a larger format.  So, I searched and found a copy of Burton’s work in the original three-volume edition from the 1930’s.  Ah!..much easier to handle.

The slipcase was made by me to hold them together – they are a bit delicate, and I will probably cover them in paper before I toss them into a backpack.  I have taken up the craft of making cases for my little treasures, such as my recently acquired Poe-Pym-Baudelaire illustrated edition.  It is not nearly as hard as I had feared to get a pretty decent result.


February 6, 2014


In the paper today, there was an article about the race to save stray dogs in Sochi, before the opening of the Winter Olympics. “Get the strays off the streets, or we will shoot them,” is the word from the officials.  This follows articles during the past week about security concerns for the games:  they are being held near a war zone, and terrorism in the region is common.  Putin, Chechnya, mega-waste-projects…a great day for sport!

The article brought to mind a passage in, Kaputt, the harrowing account of WWII on the eastern front written by Curzio Malaparte.  He is with German SS troops somewhere near the Soviet border, deep in winter snow.  The Germans are preparing for a battle in a location favorable to them when suddenly the place is filled with the sound of barking dogs.  The Germans go crazy with fear, the officers ordering the men to shoot every dog immediately as they run towards their lines.

The Russians have starved the dogs so that when released, they will run furiously towards the German soldiers, looking for food.  Some of them have explosives strapped to their backs with wires attached that stick straight up.  When the dogs with explosives run beneath a tank or truck, the wire brushes the metal, triggering the bomb.  Vehicles start exploding all over the place.

This Provincial Life

January 3, 2014

Chekhov Family and Friends
My recent visit to New Orleans got me reading Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, which I thought was very fine, and somehow that led me to Anton Chekhov.  Maybe it’s because I read some of Chopin’s short stories, a literary form I don’t spend much time with, that I decided to try Chekhov’s stories.

First, I read “A Chorus Girl,” which introduced me to the sad humor and unflinching perception of the author, and then I read the novella, My Life:  The Story of a Provincial.  It was a free ebook, and the translation was by the prolific and oft disrespected Constance Garnett, but nevertheless, I was deeply impressed.  I felt that I was reading a kindred spirit to Italo Calvino, perhaps my all-time favorite writer, with his critical and accurate eye that makes observations tempered by a very deep sense of connection to all things human.  Indeed, the story of My Life, with and the somewhat hapless but likeable, and fundamentally honest main character, reminded me of one of my Calvino favorites, “Smog.”

Written and taking place at the end of the 19th century, the story tells of Misail, a young man born to an architect-father who is, in some way, never explained, of noble extraction.  Misail, to the father’s dismay, decides to abandon the pursuit of a “respectable” career, as a professional, in a government clerkship, or in some other walk of life that requires no manual labor, and becomes a simple workman.  This makes his narrow-minded and class-obsessed father apoplectic, and matters are not helped when Misail’s adoring younger sister starts to take after him, at least as far as not acting the part of a proper young woman of means.

At times, the story seems to be running along the lines of the old plot of a young and foolish idealist who is chastened by exposure to the hardships of the real world, but Chekhov is deeper than that.  It turns out that Misail actually does have the courage of his convictions.  He is, diverted, however, by an attractive young woman, who also has a “sledge-driver” of a father, who marries him, and sets them up on a defunct estate, with dreams of creating a model society there.  Her convictions don’t run so deep, and she dumps poor Misail, running off to the metropolis to carry on properly as a sensitive intellectual with visible means of support.

Misail’s sister gets pregnant by a married man, a pompous doctor, and then falls ill.  He goes to their father, half convinced that now is the time to fall on his knees to beg forgiveness, if only to get help for his sister.  After his father makes clear that he despises both him and his sister, and that he blames Misail for his sister’s plight, that notion is put to rest for good, and Misail delivers a blistering indictment of his father’s self-centered life and mentality:

“And who is to blame?” cried my father. “You, you scoundrel!”

“Yes. Say that I am to blame,” I said. “I admit that I am to blame for many things, but why is your life, which you have tried to force on us, so tedious and frigid, and ungracious, why are there no people in any of the houses you have built during the last thirty years from whom I could learn how to live and how to avoid such suffering? These houses of yours are infernal dungeons in which mothers and daughters are persecuted, children are tortured…. My poor mother! My unhappy sister! One needs to drug oneself with vodka, cards, scandal; cringe, play the hypocrite, and go on year after year designing rotten houses, not to see the horror that lurks in them. Our town has been in existence for hundreds of years, and during the whole of that time it has not given the country one useful man—not one! You have strangled in embryo everything that was alive and joyous! A town of shopkeepers, publicans, clerks, and hypocrites, an aimless, futile town, and not a soul would be the worse if it were suddenly razed to the ground.”

Not a pretty picture of provincial life.  Nor is it a nice picture of those who criticize it, and those who live it.  As Meville would have it, …ah humanity!

More things in heaven and earth…

December 15, 2013

than are dreamed of in your philosophy.  That’s what Svengali keeps telling people in this movie – I guess he liked Hamlet, and he does have strange powers.

Svengali (1931) was based on the very popular late 19th century novel, Trilby, by George du Maurier that went through several incarnations on the stage and film, including a recent production not yet released.  The most famous is this one, with John Barrymore and Marian Marsh.  Of course, Svengali has become a byword for an evil charismatic figure.  His character in the novel was clearly a standard anti-semitic stereotype, and elements of that are still present in this film, although he is simply presented as an exotic and bizarre eastern-European, albeit with a Yiddish-sounding accent.

The film was made before The Code took force, so it contains a few spicy bits of dialog, as well as some daring views of Marsh.  In the image below, Svengali is riding with Tribly, whom he has abducted, and he gently covers her bare leg:  the scene gives the impression that he has sexually violated her as well as taken her away.

Trilby is an innocent cleaning girl who can’t sing a note, despite her marvelous “sounding board, and a roof of her mouth like the Pantheon.”  Under Svengali’s spell, she sings like a diva, and becomes one:  they are the toast of Europe, playing to packed houses everywhere.

Evil mad genius though he is, he falls in love with Tribly who cannot reciprocate:  she still pines for little Billee, the Englander who courted her in Paris.  Svengali asks her, what does he have that Svengali lacks, he with his silly paints?



He hypnotizes her into feeling love for him…

It works!  She says she loves him!


But he’s no fool.  He pushes her away…


Her voice is only her master’s voice talking to himself.


Tribly is pursued by Billee, which disrupts Svengali’s concerts.  He cannot maintain his spell over her when Billee is present, so his fortunes fail, and he is reduced to playing cafes in French Morocco.  Billee follows on, and Svengali confronts him.  He knows he is beaten, and the end is near.  When he dies in mid-concert, Tribly collapses onstage.  Cradled in Billee’s arms, her last word is “Svengali!…”  True love after all.

[The film is in English, but the sound was so poor, I used sub-titles.]

Wuthering Heights

October 20, 2013

Revisiting my high school days, I watched Wuthering Heights (1939) and read Emily Brontë’s novel again – better than I remembered!  Well, not entirely:  This bit was no less fantastic then than now.

How she does stare! It’s odd what a savage feeling I have to anything that seems afraid of me! Had I been born where laws are less strict and tastes less dainty, I should treat myself to a slow vivisection of those two, as an evening’s amusement.’

What is this book?!  It is unlike any other I know, and I have read a lot of 19th century gothic romances.  Wuthering Heights trades in some features of the gothic – the supernatural, the barren and forbidding setting, weird, demonic characters – but compared to it, stories such as Melmoth the Wanderer and the like are child’s play.  The horror and the fright in Wuthering Heights is all born out of psychology, twisted and implacable.  More likely, the book has provided the template for a host of latter-day gothic horror stories set in windy inhospitable places filled with creepy dangerous people, and houses filled with sadistic perversity.

There is so much to this novel:  the role of women of course; the place of servants; sexual perversity bordering on necrophilia; and psychopathology.  For the surrealists, it was a touchstone of l’amour fou, although the film adaptation by the master, Luis Bunuel, The Abyss of Passion (not to be confused with the current telenovella of the same name!) misses the mark widely.

The story involves two households and two families on the moors of northern England.  Local color is given by the deep Yorkshire dialect of Joseph, the insufferably pious hypocrite and loyal house servant.  There are no towns nearby – the action is all local, except when the characters charge out of the novel’s frame to elope, or emigrate to America to gain a fortune, and reports of their doings filter back by letter or word of mouth.  The family trees get tangled, and it’s a good idea to have a clear one before you when you read the story since there is Catherine Earnshaw, and Cathy Linton, and Healthcliff (no other name, as in Cher, or Sting) and Mr. Heathcliff, his despised son, and so forth.  Heathcliff wreaks havoc on them all.

The demonic Heathcliff is adopted informally to the family by Mr. Earnshaw who finds him homeless on the streets of Liverpool during a business trip.  His act of generosity is the undoing of his descendants and community:  is there a moral here?  Heathcliff and Cathy develop an intense bond as children – is this unhealthy? – and Cathy’s brother is jealous of his prerogatives as the heir to the manor.  When kindly Mr. Earnshaw dies, Heathcliff is banished to the stables.

The book is filled with servants, telling as it does the tale of local country gentry.  In fact, the main characters are surrounded by people, but most of them are never seen.  Stableboys, field hands, servant girls, all toiling to produce the wealth that sustains the Earnshaws and the Lintons.  Heathcliff runs away to escape the humiliation heaped upon him as one without a lineage or property, and he returns rich:  where did he get his money?  Nobody knows.  He seeks vengeance on the landed proprietors that cast him out.  No wonder this book was popular with Marxists literary critics!

In the end, Heathcliff appears to be successful in his quest:  He lost Cathy to an early death, but he is assured of being  buried next to her, an essential arrangement for him.  In fact, he can barely restrain himself from embracing her corpse that he has ordered exhumed in one of the more bizarre episodes of the book.  He has driven Cathy’s brother to ruin, pushed her husband into an early grave, financially and emotionally emasculated his former tormentor, the son of his benefactor, and is on the way to thoroughly degrading the  son of Cathy’s brother, who should be the heir to the Heights, but doesn’t even realize he’s being cheated of his birthright.  Oh, and Heathcliff has a son, whom he despises, born of Cathy’s sister, who was idiotically attracted to his dark, handsome prospect, and was quick to realize she had practically married Satan.  She, at least, had the good sense to flee.

But Heathcliff is undone by love.  His own obsessive love for the dead Cathy haunts him to distraction.  And the genuine love and affection that springs up between Cathy and Hareton, despite his best efforts to turn them against one another, irritates him beyond endurance.  Cathy has inherited the stubbornness and defiance of her mother, and turns it, with love, against Heathcliff.  He just dies…

And then there is Nellie, the servant who narrates most of the book.  She is often in the position of doing something that she doesn’t think is quite right, and that she would not do for her own family, but which her subservient position compels her to do.  And then, sometimes she just concludes that it’s not worth the effort to try and oppose the wishes of her masters:  after all, they are the masters, and she just a servant, even though she knows she is right and they are wrong.  I wonder if she is, after all, the voice of Emily in the book.

Man, what an imagination that woman had!

The 1939 adaptation with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon is very fine in its Hollywood-romantic way, although it deals only with the first generation of pain in Wuthering Heights, ending with the death of Catherine Earnshaw.  Olivier is wonderful in embodying the dark attraction of the Heathcliff as well as his frenzied, obsessional love.  And his supercilious blank stares when he is playing cat and mouse with his gentry opponents is brilliant.


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